Easter Sunday

April 15, 2001
See Also: 

Year A
Year B
Year C

Sermons:
Nance 2006
Sauter 2003

John Cobb on atonement
John Cobb on redemption
John Cobb on Jesus

Reading 2: 
Psalm 118:1-2,14-24
Reading 3: 
1 Corinthians 15:19-26 or Acts 10:34-43
Reading 4: 
John 20:1-18
By Barry A. Woodbridge

Note: In honor of William A. Beardslee, this week’s lectionary notes emphasize and suggest preaching on the epistle lesson for Easter Sunday, using Will’s commentary on 1 Cor. 15 in his First Corinthians A Commentary for Today (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1994), pp. 143-152, as a basis for a process approach to the Paul’s proclamation of the resurrection.

After a Psalter lesson affirming "This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it." (Ps. 118:24) and "This is the Lord's doing." (v. 23a), we are alerted that what follows in the Easter narratives is God's initiative and response to the opposition that led to Jesus’ death. That opposition has been previously and variously described in the Passion Sunday lessons in Psalm 31:15 ("deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors") and Phil. 2:7b-8 ("And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death --even death on a cross.").

Three separate witnesses (Acts 10, 1 Cor. 15, and John 20) disclose God's response to the opposition, whose final assault was the grisly death of God's progeny and initiative, Jesus.

The writer of Acts encapsulates the message with the brevity of a sound bite:

"They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear" (Acts 10:39b-40). This occurs in the context of opposition after "he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil." (v. 38b).

"God...allowed him to appear." How curious. God has a billing for this appearance, and no matter how cosmic the opposition or obstacles, nothing will stop Jesus' appearance, not even death.

Paul's account in 1 Corinthians 15 gets more complicated. This text doesn't get top Easter billing because it has neither the sound bite brevity of Acts nor the full-on drama story line of today’s gospel lesson of the empty tomb in John's gospel.1 For this reason, for the reason that process oriented preachers understand great beauty may emerge from great complexity, and for the sake of honoring the faithful scholarship and leadership of William A. Beardslee, our departed colleague and friend, we should consider giving due attention to this epistle lesson.

Paul sets forth God's process. First death came into human existence (was there ever any truly "human" existence without it?) -- 15:21. Then, there's an ordered sequence. Secondly, Christ brings the "first fruits" of victory over the opposition to God. Thirdly, Christ's transforming work continues until he has "destroyed every ruler and every authority and power" (v. 24). Lastly, "those who belong to Christ" (believers) will participate in this victory over death.

Conzelmann’s commentary on 1 Cor. 15 provides a thorough analysis of Paul’s "haparche" first fruits concept.2 He observes Jesus is the first of a series, but not specifically the first of those who are raised from the dead. Verse 20 actually says Jesus was the first of those who have "fallen asleep," not even those who had died. So far Christ as the new anthropos, the new prototype of humankind (Teilhard de Chardin had much to say about this from a different process perspective than Whitehead’s and may be helpful at this point3), is the only instance, but this break-through occurrence is to be constitutive of others to follow.

How is it we can preach to the post-modern sensibility that "the last enemy to be destroyed is death"? The facts seem to contradict Paul and us. Death surrounds us daily. Likewise, the concept of a unique resurrection or even life after death all too frequently stretches the modern sensibility beyond the bounds of its imagination.

This is where Will Beardslee’s commentary helps greatly. Will began by acknowledging the huge gap between Paul’s world view and ours:

"Many of the images of this chapter cannot simply be repeated in the world of thought and imagination in which we live today. Nor will it work to insist that there is some bare minimum of ‘facts’ that must be held on to if an interpretation is to be a true application of the message of 1 Corinthians 15 to the world of today. We will do far better to let these powerful images resonate and reflect upon the shape of the world as we perceive it – they can enlarge its possibilities and increase our freedom to respond to the call of God that lies behind and in the specific images that seem natural to us because they are part of our world."4

Will goes on to discuss how the most appropriate function of the text is to free us to respond to God’s action in Jesus’ death, not to confine us to a particular view of resurrection:

"Some will dislike this suggested openness, claiming that we need to find some definite and clear belief about life after death. On the contrary, since our hope is that God will not forget us – a theme basic to this chapter – we may leave the details to God. Some will affirm that being remembered by God is sufficient, that our contribution to life will make an important difference in God’s experience. Others, like the present writer [Will], will affirm that the spontaneity of personal life will continue in God’s presence, but will not try to imagine what that will be like. Any of these can be an affirmation that our life and actions are not in vain."5

In this section on preaching 1 Corinthians 15, Will thus summarizes the kerygma, what we freely and boldly proclaim on Easter Sunday:

"Here, too, we need to be careful not to insist too quickly on a "literal translation" of Paul’s vision. What links the two parts of chapter 15 is this deep conviction: God remembered Jesus; God will remember us. How that remembering took place and will take place was expressed in the form of the resurrection of a transformed body. But the animating faith was that we are not forgotten."6

That observation is precisely what the process-informed preacher will want to propose to the congregation. With this freeing emphasis, it is possible to explain how God defeats the opposition, how God saves Jesus and us from the death which surrounds us daily or, as process thinkers believe, the death which surrounds every moment of becoming!

Whitehead spoke of "perpetual perishing" as the way of life. Every occasion of becoming gives itself up to the next and next moment. If we see that all living experiences (and non-living occasions, too) perish so that they deliver their legacy into the future, that view need not mitigate the horror and sacrilege of Jesus' abusive death, nor does it have to suggest such surd evil was the only way God might have brought about this victory over the opposition. It does do what Paul hinted at -- it envisions a process by which God takes into account the worst the opposition can do and weaves even that into a greater harmony of purpose. Paul’s "first fruits" can mean what God did at a critical moment of Jesus’ many perishings becomes a new freedom for all creation. Thus, we can proclaim something very unique happened in God’s aim for the tragic events surrounding Jesus’ death. This one event took on a cosmic significance, far greater than all other moments of perpetual perishing, yet it can be understood as part of that same basic process.

In his The Holy Longing -- The Search for a Christian Spirituality, Ronald Rolheiser takes up the "paschal mystery" with unusual insight and clarity. He accounts for the Lord's death and resurrection (and indirectly Whitehead's notion of perpetual perishing). He tells the story of an angry seminarian who had been raped by her father at age 9. She laments, "The spirit left me at age nine. I've had no enthusiasm, really, for life ever since."7 Yet, she is healthy, attractive, has a bright husband and two healthy young children, and has become a published artist with financial security.

In her anger, she proved her violatedness by wielding a heavy feminist agenda against the unfairness of the blatant male-dominated culture, but still that in no way relieves her pain. "I want my life back! I wasn't born this angry. I don't want to die this angry. I don't want this god-awful death that wasn't my fault!"8

Rolheiser comments, "Her task is to manage an ascension. She must grieve what has died and then, when the time is right, let it go, let it ascend so that she can receive the spirit for someone who has been abused, which is different than for someone who has not been so violated. Some of the happiest people in the world have been abused and some of the most unhappy ones have been."9

At a critical moment in this woman's therapy, one of a team of healing professionals tells her:

"Jesus gave the disciples forty days to grieve and adjust. He has given you forty years! It is time to let go."

Rolheiser concludes, "Today she is a happy woman... She walks the earth happily, but with the spirit of someone who was once violated."10

God’s victory through perpetual perishing means God synthesizes Jesus' wounds and violatedness into a new creation which defies the opposition. This transformation takes time to acknowledge and get used to (hence, the mistaken identity motif at the tomb in the gospel lesson in John 20:14). There's a definite process involved here, not unlike the one Paul uses in his first fruits progression. Living in the resurrection means letting each former character defect and defeat be absorbed into a new possibility.

Rolheiser summarizes the good news of God’s remembering us through every perishing moment, through whatever the opposition brings: "You wake up one morning, look at your calendar, and come to the unwelcome realization that it is your seventieth birthday. At seventy, in terms of this life, you are no longer a young person – and all the cosmetics, exercise, plastic surgery, tummy tucks, and positive attitude in the world cannot change that. Your youth is dead. But you are not dead." It is the gospel of Easter which makes it possible to imitate Christ, subsume all the worst of opposition and perishing, and confess, "It was good to be twenty, good to be thirty, good to be forty, and fifty, and sixty; but it's even better to be seventy!"11

1. For those who would like to explore more of the intra personal dimensions of the empty tomb narratives, please see Dr. David Roy’s treatment of theme in last year’s Easter Sunday notes from year B on this web site. 2. Hans Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975, pp 267ff.
3. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man. New York: Harper & Row, 1961.
4. William A. Beardslee, First Corinthians A Commentary for Today. St Louis: Chalice Press, 1994, 150-51.
5. Beardslee, p. 157.
6. Beardslee, pp. 155-56. 7. Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing – The Search for a Christian Spirituality. New York: Doubleday, 1999, 152.
8. Rolheiser, p. 152. 9. Rolheiser, p. 152.
10. Rolheiser, p. 153.
11. Rolheiser, p. 149.